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Beyond the Box Score: ACC Edition (Part One)

As we count down toward the season (14 days!!!), we continue with our conference previews.  It wasn't the greatest of seasons for the ACC last year...will the conference bounce back in 2008?

(Probably not.)

As always, we preview teams in the order of last year's standings.

Atlantic Division

Boston College (6-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Redzone Defense (particularly Pass Defense)
  • Offensive Success Rates
  • Rushing Offense (particularly Line Yards)
  • Q2 Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive 2nd Down Rushing S&P+
#1: Defensive Line Yards+
#3: Offensive Q2 Rushing S&P+
#3: Defensive Line Yards+ (close games), Defensive Non-Passing Downs Line Yards+, Defensive Q2 Line Yards+, Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+

Bottom Ranks

#122: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#115: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#103: Defensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#99: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+ good was Boston College last year?  I really can't tell.  They had Golden Boy Matt Ryan behind center, but their passing rankings really weren't all that great.  In fact, beyond the performance of the defensive line, they really didn't rank well at too much of anything (other than Q4 offense, where they were #6).  Matt Ryan was clutch, but in a division where the best and worst teams were separated by just three games, "clutchness" was just about the only thing that moved BC ahead of rest of the field.

Now Ryan's gone.  So are the top two RBs.  And half last last year's O-line two-deep.  An "only good at times" offense just got worse.  However, the D-line returns mostly intact, as does most of the front seven for that matter, and the numbers suggest that that was the #1 thing behind BC's success.  So are the Eagles going to totally fall apart?  Not fall nearly as far as everybody thinks?  Hard to tell.

If the D-line really was as important to BC's success as the numbers suggest, BC could remain quite competitive in '08.  The DT combo of Ron Brace and BJ Raji should be just about the best in the conference.  Brace was key to last year's success, and Raji was BC's best DT in '06 before becoming an academic casualty in '07.  Meanwhile DEs Alex Albright and Jim Ramella are stout as well--Albright had 8.5 sacks in '07 and Ramella was BC's #1 DE last year before being lost to injury.  That's right--BC's D-line was as good as it gets despite losing Mathias Kiwanuka to the draft, a starting DT to academics, and another strong DE to injury.  Beyond the front four, the LB corps looks pretty decent as long as it stays healthy--injuries hit them pretty hard the last couple years as well.  The front seven will need to be very strong, as the secondary is quite depleted.

Offensively...yeah.  We'll see.  Projected starting QB Chris Crane has 1 career start in three years, and I don't believe any RBs on the roster really have any experience.  Brandon Robinson and Rich Gunnell make for a pretty decent pair of WRs, but we'll see what kind of protection Crane even gets with a relatively retooled O-line.

In other words, it doesn't look good for the BC offense.

Verdict: Expect a few 14-10 games in BC's near future.  The defense should keep them in games, but I'd be quite impressed if BC ended up in the top half of ACC offenses.  If BC makes a repeat trip to the ACC Championship game, sign Jeff Jagodzinski to a lifetime contract.

Wake Forest (5-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Pass Defense (particularly Passing Downs)
  • 2nd Down Defense
  • Offensive Success Rates (particularly Q4)
  • Q2 Defense

Top Ranks

#4: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+
#5: Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#6: Defensive Q2 Rushing S&P+
#8: Defensive Q3 Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#117: Defensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+
#115: Defensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#115: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+
#114: Defensive Passing EqPts+
#113: Offensive Line Yards+

Like BC, Wake's biggest strength was defending the rush.  They were as good or better than BC in that regard, and their front seven returns even more experience than BC.  Meanwhile, their offense was (and is) all about misdirection and leverage--stay out of passing downs, gain big yards early, rely on the defense down the stretch.  The Demon Deacons know what they're doing in this regard--Riley Skinner completed an NCAA best 72% of his passes in 2007 despite really only having one weapon on offense (the since-graduated Kenny Moore).  Big, strong, fast teams can physically dominate Wake (Clemson throttled them, 44-10), but there aren't too many of those teams in the ACC.  Wake is built to win close, conservative games, and in a weak conference Wake is virtually guaranteed at least 7 wins.

I said 7 instead of 9 because Kenny Moore is gone, and he really was the only receiving threat.  Moore caught 98 passes in 2007 (and had 44 carries on top of that); the next highest was RB Josh Adams' 34 catches (for all of 123 yards).  The leading returning receiver is Chip Brinkman*, who caught 27 passes for 225 yards in '07.  Meanwhile, the OL has to replace about 3.5 starters, which means that it might be a struggle for Adams in the backfield as well.  The good news, though, is that Riley Skinner's somehow only a junior--there is no better QB for this conservative, misleading offense, and there is no better coach of this offense than Jim Grobe.  They only managed 340 yards per game last year (and 307 per game the year they won the ACC), so they don't need much offensive success to succeed--they're really, really good at taking advantage of opportunities.

* That's really his name.

And the defense should give them some opportunities.  Nine starters return on a D that gave up only 332 yards per game (3.2 yards per carry, 53% completion rate).  SS Chip Vaughn (another Chip!) and LB Aaron Curry are the resident tackling machines, and as I mentioned above, the no-name D-line returns mostly intact.  Meanwhile, CB Alphonso Smith is one of the best in the nation--he had 3 sacks to go with his 8 INTs and 10 PBUs.

Verdict: This team doesn't look great on paper beyond Alphonso Smith and Riley Skinner, but...they didn't the last two years either, and they've won 19 games and an ACC title in that span.  No team has benefitted more from the muddled balance of power than the Deacons, but only one team (Clemson) is really surging forward, so it's quite possible that another 7-9 wins await the Fightin' Jim Grobes this season.

Clemson (5-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense (particularly in close games)
  • Pass Offense (particularly in close games)
  • 3rd Down Offense
  • Defensive Success Rates

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Q2 Rushing S&P+
#5: Defensive Q2 S&P+
#6: Defensive Redzone Rushing S&P+
#6: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#122: Defensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+
#121: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#118: Defensive 3rd Down S&P+
#118: Defensive Q4 Line Yards+

THIS IS THE YEAR.  Definitely.  Probably.  Maybe.  Possibly.  Right?

After a 6-6 first season at the helm, the last eight years under Tommy Bowden have been, shall we say, steady.  Wins per season since 2000: 9, 7, 7, 9, 6, 8, 8, 9.  They say never bet against a trend (okay, I say that), but everybody is betting against this trend this year (picking 10 wins or more), and...well...surely this is the freaking year.

I mean...QB Cullen Harper--he of the 27-6 TD-INT ratio--returns (along with 5-star backup Willy Korn) do RBs James Davis and CJ Spiller...and best-in-conference WR Aaron Kelly.  And on defense, they return just about everybody from last year's 300-yards-per-game defense while adding the nation's #1 incoming defensive end, Da'Quan Bowers.  However...despite seemingly having an extreme speed advantage in every game last year, Clemson's vaunted offense wasn't able to thrive against the higher-level defenses they faced--they scored 3 points against Georgia Tech, 23 against Virginia Tech (unfortunately they gave up 41), 17 against Boston College, and 17 (in regulation) against Auburn.  They averaged less than 2 yards per carry four times.  They went 1-3 versus ranked teams.  They didn't actually turn the corner, so we're once again just assuming they will.  It's always possible (after all, my own Missouri Tigers broke through last year).

Here's my biggest point of hesitation: Clemson has to replace FOUR starters on the offensive line, including both their all-conference LG and all-conference LT.  It appears there's plenty of talent in this unit, but...holy smokes, is that a lot to lose.  And no matter how great your RBs are, they're going to be limited if they're having to make their first move 3 yards in the backfield.  This is still likely the best offense in the conference, but I'm thinking good defenses will still be able to slow them down quite a bit.  This isn't a "they're getting their yards no matter the opponent" situation.

(One more point of hesitation: they were +13 in turnovers in '07.  That's hard to duplicate in back-to-back years.)

Defensively, though, this team is pretty stacked.  They have to replace three of their top five tacklers, but that's all they have to replace.  The D-line, led by DEs Ricky Sapp and (probably) Bowers and DT Dorell Scott, is going to be outstanding.  They should be able to dominate in the trenches against most of the offenses in this conference.  And a dominant line should clear the way nicely for what will be at least above average LBs and DBs.

Verdict: In the words of Black Sheep...I just don't know, hon, I just don't know.  I completely understand why they're getting the hype they're getting, and they're one of my favorite teams to watch (must be because I sat in the 1,347th row in Death Valley for the 2000 Mizzou-Clemson game and had a close-to-God experience), so I kind of hope they live up to expectations.  While Clemson has to be the conference favorites, I still see them slipping up along the way.  Conference title is within reach, but probably not national title.

Florida State (4-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Defensive Points Per Play (particularly in close games and on Passing Downs)
  • Passing Offense (particularly on 1st Downs)
  • 2nd Down Defense
  • Q2 Defense

Top Ranks

#2: Defensive 2nd Down Line Yards+
#4: Defensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#4: Defensive Line Yards+
#4: Defensive Q2 Line Yards+

Bottom Ranks

#120: Offensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#117: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#116: Offensive Redzone S&P+
#113: Offensive Non-Passing Downs Line Yards+

Trendthe general course or prevailing tendency; drift: trends in the teaching of foreign languages; the trend of events

Florida State's win total the last five years: 10, 9, 8, 7, 7.  Just throwing that out there.

It's time to stop looking at Florida State as "Florida State".  For most of the post-Weinke decade, the Seminoles have simply been a defense-oriented team that was good at stopping the run and pretty damn poor at moving the ball down the field.  They haven't averaged 30 PPG since 2003.  They haven't averaged over 150 rushing yards per game since 2004.  They haven't been ranked in November since 2005.  I'm not saying they're done by any means, but it's an uphill climb back to where FSU was for the entire decade of the 1990s: the nation's top tier.

We'll start with the defense since, well, the defense could be pretty outstanding.  Returnees include LB Derek Nicholson (99 tackles, 7.5 TFL), DE Everette Brown (6.5 sacks, 5 other TFL), CB Patrick Robinson (6 INT), and S Myron Rolle (solid safety, though hasn't quite lived up to his All-World high school hype yet).  FSU gave up a rather unFSUlike 22.9 points per game in '07, and maybe that wouldn't be a problem if they still had their '90s FSU offense, but with a rather horrific offense at their disposal, every big play the defense allowed was a small dagger.  However, the pass rush should improve, the LBs should be at least steady, and an experienced secondary (two juniors, two seniors) should significantly improve.  The defense should be back in the <20 PPG range.  But will the offense improve?  (I'm going to do my best not to just say "maybe.")




Maybe.  Sorry.  Drew Weatherford returns for one last shot at reaching his potential, decent RB Antone Smith will be complemented by JUCO stud Tavares Pressley, star athletes Greg Carr and Preston Parker return at WR, they've got a giant at TE (6'7, 280 pound Caz Piurowski)...and yet their biggest weakness (an offensive line that #97 in the country in close-game Line Yards+ and #117 in 1st Down Line Yards+) likely just got even weaker.  Sophomore Rodney Hudson is a potential stud, as is sophomore center Ryan McMahon.  Beyond that?  Who the hell knows.  The other three positions will consist of some combinations of sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and (gulp) true freshmen.  Obviously most of these guys were highly touted coming out of high school--FSU still recruits well, even if their performance has slowly slid over the years--so maybe it will work out fine, but there will be growing pains.  Lucky for the 'Noles, they don't actually leave the state of Florida until October 16.  They've got time to work things out, but I'm not tremendously optimistic.

Verdict: FSU was 2-3 in games decided by a TD or less last year.  If the offense and defense can each improve by just a FG or so again, they could conceivably stumble into 10-win territory for (somehow) the first time since 2003...not because of significant improvement so much as an extremely doable schedule.  Longest road trip?  Maryland.  Toughest road game?  Georgia Tech or Miami.  Clemson, Va Tech, and Florida all visit Tallahassee, and though they won't go 3-0 in those games, 2-1 is at least a possibility.  The offense still isn't going to be "FSU-like", but the schedule is extremely navigable.

Maryland (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • 1st Down/Non-Passing Downs Defense
  • Defensive Line Yards
  • Q4 Defense
  • Q2 Offense

Top Ranks

#4: Offensive Q1 S&P+
#5: Offensive 1st Down Passing S&P+
#6: Offensive Non-Passing Downs S&P+
#7: Offensive Q1 Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#115: Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#112: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#111: Defensive 2nd Down Rushing S&P+
#99: Defensive Rushing S&P+ (close games)

At this point, you kind of know what to expect from Ralph Friedgen's fighting turtles.  They're going to gameplan well, they're going to figure out a way to move the ball early, they're going to play gritty defense, they're going to be good on Non-Passing Downs and brutal on Passing Downs, they're going to win more than you think they're going to, and like Wake Forest, they're going to struggle against teams with loads of speed.  And they're probably going to miss out on most of the best in-state recruits, but that's a whole 'nother story.  That formula has little margin for error, but for the most part it's worked for Fridgen--he's won 9 games three times in six years.  Granted, their good seasons have coincided with the ACC moving to Tier 2 status among BCS conferences, but's still relatively impressive.

The 2008 version of the Terps should be a relatively enhanced version of the 2007 version.  There's a 3-way QB battle between returning starter Chris Turner, senior Jordan Steffy, and dynamic Florida transfer Josh Portis.  The WR corps is deep and full of pretty highly-touted recruits, led of course by Darrius Heyward-Bey.  The projected starting RB (Morgan Green) is strong and fast and full of potential (if he can stay healthy).  The O-line is huge and experienced.  If Q2/Q4 really are talent quarters, Maryland should perform better there in '08.  The running game is a bit of a question mark (last year's starter only averaged 3.8 yards per carry, even with a decent line), but there are a lot more weapons than a normal Fridgen offense.

Defensively...I don't know.  There's decent star power--LB Dave Philistin is awesome and FS Antwine Perez is a USC transfer, know...he's gotta be relatively athletic and talented (transferring because you're stuck behind Taylor Mays is nothing to be ashamed of).  They did lose 5 of their top 8 tacklers, so depth might be a problem, but there's still quite a bit of experience.  I'm not too worried about the Terp defense.  You know they're probably going to allow about 140-170 rushing yards per game and 180-210 passing yards, and if they score, they'll probably win.

Verdict: It's hard for me to think too hard about Maryland.  They're a known quantity.  They have a bit more explosive potential on offense than they have in the past and a little less depth on defense, but otherwise...they're still Maryland.  The schedule is tricky--road trips to Va Tech, Clemson, and BC, along with a non-con home game against California, mean that they may not win more than 7-8 games, but they'll almost certainly win 7-8 games.

N.C. State (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Non-Passing Downs Defense
  • 3rd Down Rushing Offense
  • Defensive Points Per Play
  • 3rd Down Defense

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#8: Defensive Q3 S&P+
#9: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#10: Defensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#123: Offensive 2nd Down Rushing S&P+
#121: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#119: Offensive 2nd Down Line Yards+
#117: Offensive Line Yards+

While you may know what to expect from Maryland and Wake Forest (and to a lesser extent, Clemson and FSU as well), NC State is basically a complete unknown at the moment.  Their records have been all over the place in the past few years--from 11 in 2002 to 3 in 2006.  Their coach was a model of consistency at Boston College, winning either 8 or 9 games every year between 2001 and 2006, but it took him two 4-win seasons to get rolling at BC.  I assumed it would take O'Brien a couple of years to establish himself, but 2007 both confirmed my theory (blowout losses to two 6-win teams in Louisville and Maryland) and made me seriously question it (wins over two bowl teams in East Carolina and Virginia).  NC State was actually sitting at 5-5 and staring a bowl bid in the face until they collapsed against Wake Forest and Maryland to end the season.  So was it encouraging?  Discouraging?

In all, the Wolfpack were pretty well-defined in 2007--decent pass offense, decent pass defense, average run defense, bad run offense (highlighted by a horrific O-line).  They ranked #100 or worse in 20 categories overall--7 of them involved offensive line yards and another four were also rushing related.  This was their Achilles heel.  O'Brien has moved a couple of D-linemen over to hopefully bring more potential to the unit, and there's now a ton of experience in the unit as well, so...well, it's not going to get any worse anyway.

Which brings us to the second problem: even with an improved O-line, there's still not a ton of big-play potential on offense.  RBs Jamelle Eugene and Andre Brown have experience and have shown flashes of potential, but (as I just said about Maryland) they're known quantities.  WR Donald Bowens averaged 14.5 yards per catch last year, but he's the only returning receiver who caught more than 12 passes in '07.  The options at QB are either mediocre senior Daniel Evans, Nebraska retread Harrison Beck, or a true freshman (albeit a stud true freshman), Mike Glennon.  The offense is at least another year away from making some noise, so NC State's bowl hopes are pinned on the defense...

...which probably isn't a good thing.  All three starting LBs are gone.  Between graduation and moving players to the O-line, the D-line is bereft of experience.  The secondary is experienced but lacking in star power.  The Wolfpack need some playmakers, and I have no idea who they will be.  Maybe junior DE Willie Young (6 sacks in '07)?  Senior CB Jeremy Gray (3 INTs, 62 tackles)?  Don't know.  And that isn't good.

Verdict: O'Brien's BC teams were the model of consistency, but his program there started slow.  Expect a step backwards from last season's 5 wins.


  1. Clemson
  2. Florida State
  3. Wake Forest
  4. Maryland
  5. Boston College
  6. NC State
Part Two tomorrow.